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For most cyclists, the winter represents the off-season. It is the time in which you begin setting your sights on new goals and when you begin training hard for next season. As you look ahead to the things you want to accomplish next year, you might find yourself wondering what it will take to get there. Many people will consider increasing their workout duration or workout intensity; others will look to make strength gains in the gym.
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Why should cyclists strength train?
There is still some debate as to whether or not strength training is really essential for cyclists. After all, cycling is largely a cardiovascular sport and just turning over the pedals can help increase leg strength. For that reason, if you are a timed strapped athlete and any time you spend lifting weights will infringe on your time turning the pedals, then strength training might not be for you. Often times, the best way we can make improvements is by doing the thing that we want to improve on. However, if you are looking for the edge over your competition, or you just want to take your riding to the next level, strength training may very well be just the thing to get you there.
Cycling ability is often measured in power. Put very simply, power equals force times velocity. When you turn over the bike’s crank arm, you put force into the crank arm. In order to produce the greatest amount of power, you need to produce the most force at the highest speed. Since your cadence can only be so high, at a certain point, force becomes most people’s limiter. By increasing leg strength, you will be able to increase your force and overall ability on the bike. Not to mention the fact that strength training also helps to increase bone density and decrease the chance of injury.
Strength training periodization
Great! You’ve decided to add strength training into your weekly routine. Now, where do you start? Just like your on-the-bike training program, strength training can and should follow a periodized approach in order to get the most out of your training. In the off-season, when you aren’t racing, consider strength training two to three times a week and follow the progression through the strength phases discussed below. When you begin to race, you may want to cut your strength training back to once a week and utilize a more maintenance-oriented approach.
Preparatory Phase: All strength training programs should begin with a preparatory phase. The preparatory phase helps the body to adapt to weight training in a safe fashion. If you’ve ever gone to the gym after a long time without lifting weights and felt like you couldn’t walk for a week, then you may have benefitted from a longer preparatory phase. During the preparatory phase, the body adapts to the new demands placed on it. This is also a time to learn and dial in proper technique as well as to address any possible limitations. This phase is designed to have lighter intensities. The duration of the preparatory phase may range from person-to-person, but should last a minimum of two weeks.
You may see large improvements throughout this phase and continued into the hypertrophy phase as your body makes neuromuscular adaptations and your body and mind learn to work together. Your body learns how to synchronize muscle fibers and how to recruit more muscle fibers to benefit your lifting. You may see these neuromuscular adaptations for the first 8-10 weeks of your strength training.1
Hypertrophy Phase: The hypertrophy phase targets muscle growth or an increase in muscle size. Muscular hypertrophy will help to increase the cross-sectional area of muscle fibers. Increases in muscle size may not always be the first thing that cyclists think of when wanting to improve but increased muscle size can translate to increased force production and even an increased metabolism.
The hypertrophy phase should last approximately 4 weeks. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends completing three to six sets of six to 12 repetitions at 67 to 85 percent of ‘one-rep max’ during the hypertrophy phase.2 Your one-rep max is the maximum amount of weight that you can move for that specific exercise if you are only doing one repetition. You may need to set aside time to safely build and assess what your one-rep max is. Take approximately 30 to 90 seconds of recovery between sets in the hypertrophy phase.2 If you are still struggling to know exactly how much to lift and are uncertain about the prospects of a one-rep max test, then lift an amount that is doable, although challenging, for the final two to three repetitions of each set.
Strength Phase: The strength phase targets increasing the maximal force that your muscles or muscle groups can produce. For this reason, the strength phase will require fewer repetitions at higher intensities. Novice athletes may need to take caution during the strength phase and lift at lower intensities until they are confident in form and technique. According to NSCA, intermediate athletes should lift at or greater than 80 percent of one-rep max, and advanced athletes should lift at or greater than 85 percent of one-rep max.2 The exact amount that you lift may be contingent upon how many repetitions you do. The strength phase generally consists of two to six sets with one to six repetitions per set and two to five minutes of recovery in between so that you can continue to produce that maximum force.2 The strength phase may last about four weeks.
Power Phase: The power phase is thought to be an explosive phase because power involves the rate at which the movement is produced. For very advanced weight lifters the power phase may include technical lifts such as the snatch, and the clean and jerk. For less experienced weight lifters, power exercises can still be performed through the use of plyometrics and explosive exercises. Exercises such as box jumps, squat jumps, medicine ball throws, or adding a speed element to a variety of other more traditional lifts are all great examples of power exercises. The power phase requires good form and focus. Since the type of lifts vary greatly within the power phase, the repetitions, sets, and load will vary as well. Speed remains the most important element of the power phase. This phase can be especially important for sprinters or mountain bikers who need the ability to produce short bursts over difficult terrain. The power phase may last two to four weeks or power exercises can be integrated into the workouts of other phases.
Endurance Phase: The endurance phase works on a muscle’s ability to repeatedly produce force. This phase will also likely last about four weeks. It will involve one to three sets of 10 to 25 repetitions.2 While more advanced athletes may be able to maintain up to 75 percent of their one-rep max, others may best complete endurance work just as bodyweight exercises. Remember that the load may feel quite easy to begin, but by repetition 25 it may feel like you are moving mountains. The rest between sets during the endurance phase should be less than 30 seconds.
Maintenance Phase: As on-the-bike workouts become more demanding and racing re-enters the picture, maintenance workouts become more important. Every time you are fatigued from the weight room, it can limit your ability to perform on the bike. It’s important to find a happy medium. The maintenance phase is exactly what it sounds like; you are working to maintain what you have already built. That means you should not add anything new during this phase. Decrease the sets and reps that you are currently doing and use the extra time and energy to put the power into the pedals.
Remember your goals
The gym can be a fun way to shake up your training while still working toward your on-the-bike goals. It’s important to remember the purpose that brought you to the gym in the first place. Each exercise you do in the gym should have a purpose in helping to drive the pedals. Obviously, the gym is so much more than just another place to show off your hard-earned tan lines!
- Kenney, W. Larry, et al. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics, 2015.
- Clayton, Nick, et al. National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2015, www.nsca.com/contentassets/693872c8a25245a7ba49fc5527a236b9/foundations-of-fitness-programming-quiz-preview.pdf.